1968 was a tumultuous year.
Martin Luther King, Junior was assassinated.
Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
My family moved from Fort Recovery to Dayton.
I was 12 years old. Like a Star Trek crewman, I found myself transported from a cloistered, rural, white farming community to a crowded, urban, integrated metropolis. I do not recall seeing a black person in the flesh prior to our move. I was puzzled why Life and Time made such a fuss about Tommie Smith and John Carlos showing the raised fist on the podium after their 200-meter race at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
When school started that fall, I was amazed at Afro hair, perplexed by references to Black Power, and bewildered why referring to someone as a “boy” was met with snarled menace, “Who you calling boy!” The shirtless teenagers playing street basketball in my school yard terrified me. So did the bully shaking down a classmate, “Give me your lunch money and don’t give me no shit.”
To this day I still do not know why a student punched me so hard in the face that my glasses went flying. I had never even met him! All I was doing was holding the door open for the class to come into the building at the beginning of the day.
I had problems of my own. I was a teenager. My dad was alive one day and gone the next. What did it all mean? I couldn’t figure out my own life. How could I understand this alien culture?
So, I read the book Black Like Me. Reading journalist John Howard Griffin’s account of his darkening his white skin to experience life as a black man made me conscious that there were two different cultures living side by side. Neither the whites nor the blacks were fully aware of the differences their race made upon how they experienced life.
My study of history throughout my growing up years was deficient. We never seemed to get caught up to our current century. The school year always ran out first. Now days I wonder if that was deliberate. Maybe my teachers didn’t know how to make any more sense of this tense world than I did.
In fact, it was not until 2013 when I watched the film The Butler that I realized the black-white tensions of my junior high and high school years had a much larger historical context. In a flash, Afros, Black Power, and clenched fists made sense.
By then I had lived for 20 years in a town not much different from Fort Recovery. White. Separated 11 miles from other races. 50 miles from other cultures. My first experience of those town members set the tone. They came to move us from our apartment. It was one block from the railroad tracks that divided the inner-city blacks from the rich whites of Bexley. One asked, “Are there many wool heads around here?” I was shocked. That would have gotten me shot in high school!
Quietly, fearfully, I tried to encourage folks to see that the same world looked different with different skin tones. But the culture assimilated me more than I influenced them. I knew I was caught deep in the white world view whenever I attended an event that brought me into contact with other races and other cultures. I noticed the color. I noticed the religion. I was blind to the beauty of God’s diversity.
I still have much to learn. This year I read The Warmth of Other Suns. Why had I never learned before of The Great Migration? Vicariously experiencing the lives of three Americans uprooted from their Southern roots into the Northern enclaves has deepened my understanding of the racial complexity in the United States.
What has been your experience?